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What’s Uniting Russia’s Revolutionaries?

January 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Six weeks before a presidential election in Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is off and running, attempting a return to another presidential stint -- despite growing anti-Putin demonstrations across the country. Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News reports on the efforts of three revolutionary organizations.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The presidential election in Russia is just six weeks away, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attempting to return in another presidential stint.

But opposition to his bid is growing.

Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News has this report.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: In the past few weeks, Russia’s been roiled by the biggest street protests in 20 years.

For most of that time, this vast country has been run by Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy who now stands accused of rigging last month’s elections to stay in power even longer. Videos emerged of votes stuffed into boxes long before the polls even opened. This woman was filmed voting dozens of times, and officials have been caught on camera busily trying to change the election result.

Mr. Putin’s hometown is St. Petersburg, where the mood is turning against him. “Give power to the people,” they chanted last month. Others never had the chance to be heard. The 1917 revolution began here. So could this be the launch pad for Russia’s version of the Arab Spring?

Channel 4 News has been given access to three groups in the vanguard of anti-Putin protest. These are the most notorious and secretive of St. Petersburg’s revolutionaries. They’re currently in hiding, and there’s an international warrant out for their arrest.

Their name is Voina, which means war. On New Year’s Eve, they set fire to a police transporter, claiming this was their gift for all political prisoners. They’ve turned over police cars in protest. The aim here, they say, is to create works of art which humiliate the authorities and inspire dissent.

Here, they soldered and screwed shut the doors of a restaurant owned by a Putin supporter. The three ringleaders live by stealing food and clothing. And they’re constantly on the lookout for the police. They keep their home address secret. And it’s so run-down that they have no piped hot water. Two of them were in prison for three months last year, until the British graffiti artist Banksy posted 80,000 pounds bail.

They’re bring up a 2-year-old child here. And even he has to sleep in a cardboard box to keep warm. And Putin, they believe, will stay cozy in his position of absolute power, unless they escalate their protests.

MAN (through translator): I don’t believe in peaceful protest, because I don’t believe peaceful protest is possible in Russia. If you just use legal methods, like the organizers of the big demonstrations propose, then you won’t be able to stand up to the state.

JONATHAN RUGMAN:  Andrei Dmitriev is trying to protest legally in Russia’s second city. He’s a Bolshevik revolutionary, an admirer of Joseph Stalin. And he wants to return Russia to a Soviet-style economy.

Andrew and his fellow Bolsheviks meet in this cafe every month. They have campaigned against capitalism for years, and they’re now riding the wave of Vladimir Putin’s growing unpopularity for all its worth.

MAN (through translator): We have reached a critical mass. And the most dangerous thing for those in power and what will bury them is that this is a mass of educated and urban people. This regime will be destroyed, and we will get a completely different political situation in the country.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Andrei’s flat in the suburbs has been raided by police, who have ordered him not to leave the city.

His party has been ban, and he faces three years in jail if found guilty of promoting extremism. He says that Vladimir Putin, once seen as Russia’s strongman, is now its tyrannical czar, and that if he rigs presidential elections in March, he will face a Russian version of the Arab Spring.

MAN (through translator): I think his desire to reign will not lead to any good. There will be a very powerful civil protest in March, more than in December. This is a chance to change the fate of the country.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Filip Kostenko describes himself as an anarchist. And he’s been on hunger strike for the past 15 days in a police cell. Last month, he was arrested at this demonstration against election fraud. It was nonviolent, but illegal nevertheless.

Even hapless photographers were whisked away by police. And Filip was detained for 15 days. Today, that sentence supposedly ends, but instead of freeing him, police have taken him back to court. A fortnight on hunger strike has disorientated him, and he hasn’t been told what the latest charge against him is.

MAN (through translator): I was arrested at a demonstration against vote rigging at Gostinyi Dvor and was sentenced to 15 days at the Zakharovsky police cells. And after I was released, they brought me here, obviously to fabricate another case against me.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: The judge sentences Filip to another 15 days. It turns out his crime is swearing in public, which is illegal. But Filip’s friends say this is often used as a pretext for jailing critics of Vladimir Putin’s rule.

Fifteen days for swearing may be revenge for this. Last year, activists occupied the Aurora, the cruiser which fired the first shots of the Russian Revolution and one of the Soviet Union’s holiest relics. They unfurled the Jolly Roger from the mast and claimed that crooks had taken over Russia.

And while Filip wasn’t on board, he was certainly there. “Today is the beginning of a revolution, and we will be victorious,” he said on local TV, before fights broke out, as police dragged demonstrators away.

So what unites these Russian revolutionaries? Well, it’s not really a belief in Western-style democracy, more a burning desire for change.